The Ganga is getting political attention. What does it take to clean the river? Soma Basu and Sushmita Sengupta travel with photographer Vikas Choudhary from Kanpur to Varanasi, the river's most polluted stretch, to understand why the pollution is so persistent, while Sunita Narain suggests ways to clean it
UMA SHANKAR is fidgety as he rows his boat in the Ganga in Varanasi. His mouth, full of betel nut juice, is swollen like a water balloon. His head is pounding in the eagerness to spit it out. At such moments earlier, he would conveniently empty his mouth into the Gan-ga and take tourists around, telling stories of the holy river and the ghats. But the 40-year-old Nishad, a community hailed as children of water in mythology, is in a rush to reach the other side of the river. He cannot dare to spit the betel nut juice into the water. After all, Union water resources minister Uma Bharti has recently announced that people found spitting in the Ganga could be fined Rs 10,000 or jailed for three days.
Shankar steals a glance at the camera of Down To Earth photographer, scared that just one picture of him spitting may cost him his boat. His attempt is laudable. But what would a little spit do in the sea of sewage that is spilled into the river every day. In 1986, the government had launched the first phase of Ganga Action Plan (GAP-I) to protect the country’s largest river basin. It selected stretches of the river along 25 cities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal. In 1993, GAP-II was initiated which included the river’s tributaries—the Yamuna, Gomti, Damodar and the Mahanadi. On February 20, 2009, the Union government gave the Ganga the status of a National River and re-launched GAP with a reconstituted National Ganga River Basin Authority. The re-launched GAP took into account the entire river basin and emphasised the river’s need to have adequate water to maintain its ecological flow. But five years after the re-launch, pollution levels are still, to say the least, grim. Rivers have the ability to clean themselves—to assimilate and treat biological waste using sunlight and oxygen. But the Ganga gets no time to breathe and revive. There are more settlements and many more people who live along its banks. All take water and return only waste. The Ganga dies, not once but many times in its 2,500 km journey from the Gangotri in the Himalayas to Diamond Harbour in the Bay of Bengal (see ‘Highly polluted stretches’).
The July 2013 report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) shows unacceptable levels of faecal coliform, a clear sign of human excreta, all along the river’s mainstream (see ‘Faecal coliform levels...’). But it is even more worrying that faecal coliform levels are increasing even in upper reaches like Rudraprayag and Devprayag, where the river’s oxygenating ability is the highest. In these parts, water withdrawal for hydropower plants has put the river’s health in danger. As the Ganga flows down the plains, water is taken away for irrigation and drinking, so much so that during winters and peak summer months the river goes dry in many parts, and only sewage flows between its banks. The holy river is, thus, converted into a stinking sewer.
Why so polluted?
Thirty-six settlements, classified as Class-I cities, contribute 96 per cent of wastewater draining into the river. According to CPCB’s 2013 report, 2,723 million litres per day (mld) of domestic sewage is discharged by cities located along the river. But even this may be a gross underestimate as the calculation is based on the water that is supplied in the cities. As city managers often do not supply all the water that is used—much is groundwater—the actual sewage is often higher. This is what CPCB found when it measured the discharge from drains into the Ganga—6,000 mld was discharged into the river (see ‘State of pollution’).
Needless to say, the capacity to treat this sewage is inadequate. But it is even smaller, if we consider two facts: one, that the gap between sewage generation and treatment remains the same every year—55 per cent. So even as the treatment capacity is added, more sewage gets added because of population growth. The situation worsens if the actual measured discharge from drains is taken to estimate the pollution load. Then the gap between what is installed and what is generated goes up to 80 per cent.
Over and above this, 764 industrial units along the main stretch of the river and its tributaries Kali and Ramganga discharge 500 mld of mostly toxic waste. All efforts to rein in this pollution have failed.
The horror does not end here. These cities have grown without planning and investment, so most do not have underground drainage networks. Even in Allahabad and Varanasi 80 per cent of the areas are without sewers. Waste is generated but not conveyed to treatment plants. There is no power to run treatment plants; bankrupt municipalities and water utilities have no money to pay for operations. CPCB checked 51 out of 64 sewage treatment plants (STPs) along the Ganga in 2013. It found only 60 per cent of installed capacity of the plants was being used; 30 per cent of the STPs were not even operational. So actual treatment is even less, and untreated waste discharged into the river even more.
Ganga’s journey through Uttar Pradesh—from Kanpur through Unnao, Fatehpur to Raibareilly and then Allahabad and Varanasi via Mirzapur—is killing. The river does not get the chance to assimilate the waste poured into it from cities and industries. It is only in Allahabad that some cleaner water is added through the Yamuna, which helps it to recover somewhat. Then as it moves towards Varanasi, sewage is poured in again. It dies again.
This land is where the poorest of India live; where urban governance is almost non-existent; and pollution thrives. In 2013, CPCB identified 33 drains along the Kanpur-Varanasi stretch with high biological oxygen demand (BOD), the key indicator of pollution. Of the 33, seven are big offenders, with high BOD load.
Uttar Pradesh has 687 grossly polluting industries, finds CPCB. These largely small scale, often illegal units—tanneries, sugar, pulp and paper and chemical—contribute 270 mld of wastewater. But what really matters is the location of the plants. While over 400 tanneries contribute only 8 per cent of the industrial discharge, they spew highly toxic effluent into the river and are located as a cluster near Kanpur. So the concentration of pollution is high. It is alarming that not much is happening to control pollution. The law is helpless. In 2013, an inspection of 404 industrial units by CPCB showed that all but 23 did not comply with the law. Directions have been issued and closure notices served. But it is business as usual.
Pollution has unnerved the people living along the river. After Uma Shankar manages to rinse his mouth, he says, “We cannot wash or bathe or catch fish. Why are the drains that pour in the city’s filth not plugged? People talk of cleaning the Ganga. The slogan should be ‘save the Ganga’.”